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November 03, 2008

Fraid to ask? Fake it till you make it. (And, a retail bust.)

November 3. Day 126.

Mr. A called a little after noon today with a mission: Dry clean his suit and buy him a blazer or whatever else is necessary for a business look, since he's taking off for a week-long conference in Prague and has been consumed by deadlines and would I mind helping him with this?

Of course not!

I looked in his closet and made a mental list of what would fill in the blanks -- a black blazer? A warm jacket to face the Bohemian autumn? A white or soft blue shirt, but not in a boring "Dockers" cornflower shade. Maybe something in bordeaux, since it's a color that looks great on him. And everything had to be comfortable. He detests ties.

I glanced online to learn about collars and pleats, because frankly, what do I know about menswear? I can recognize a well dressed man. I greatly enjoy recognizing a well dressed men. Whenever Mr. A is said man, paradoxically, I quickly want to change his status from dressed to its opposite.

My male fashion expertise stops there.

At Nordstrom Rack, I got some advice from shoppers and a salesman. What to look for in a shirt in terms of quality. How long pants should be. What's comfy but crisp. The benefits of wrinkle free.

As I started pulling out some shirts and checking them against the jackets I chose, an unexpected feeling crept up on me: embarassment! I started imagining what the guys around me were thinking. "She must be the controlling type." "She won't even let her boyfriend pick his own tie." "I bet she lays out his outfits every night."

I wanted to shout back. "But he asked me to!! He's working overtime and I love shopping! I'm not his mother! I'm his girlfriend! Just look at my purple suede heels, which I selected before heading out today to send you a subtle message about what an individualist I am!

"I wear purple!!

"I believe in the freedom of fashion!!!"

Of course, it was all in my head. Everybody I talked to was unperturbed by my presence. Friendly, even. One guy around my age exclaimed, "He gets a personal shopper? Nice!" An older man: "I wish my wife shopped for me, but she refuses to."

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to a word I've been thinking about today: Expert.

Being an expert in something -- be it menswear, purple pumps, quantum game theory or shopping cart ergodynamics -- isn't just something your earn by studying or practicing. It entails being publicly comfortable with your exceptional knowledge in an area. It's entails representing that area. It's membership, it's access, it's entitlement. It also comes with certain responsibilities.

In any case, you have to claim that status. Some people claim it without working for it. Others do the opposite. I believe they should go hand in hand. But, I realized today that I'm unfailingly shy to profess expertise, or even experience -- because I don't want to benefit from the corresponding access, entitlement, acknowledgement. It's costed me professionally, intellectually, socially.

People in the shirt aisle weren't judging me negatively; I was doing that on my own. I was excluding myself from the circle of people who should shop for men's clothes. I decided, essentially, that I was intruding in an area I shouldn't be an expert in. Yet, no one else thought to question my place there!

And that makes me wonder: how often do I close doors? "I don't know much about that subject, so I'll keep quiet." "I'm not experienced in that, so why don't you two do whatever makes you happy?" "You're the expert, so whatever you think is best!" Etc, etc, etc. It's safe, it's deferential, it seems to be better for the system. And it's a strategy I've adoped too frequently in the past. But maybe the decision makers weren't more qualified; they just had louder voices, more swagger, or a greater opinion of their abilities.

When it comes to asking, I think my new approach is going to be: "Fake it till you make it." Act like an expert in negotiation, until I become one. For minor requests, I know I'll probably get them, so I'm already fearless. But what about the big ones?

For Mr. A's purchases, I asked for a discount at the cash register, at two stores. But I was shy. I seemed unconvinced. And I was flatly rejected.

"We don't do that here."

"You can get discounts at department stores, not here."

Gained: A refinement to my strategy. My new goal isn't just to ask, but to ask expecting to hear yes, even when I secretly think the answer will be no. With each new type of challenge, I must present myself like I've asked for that 100 times. Believe in yes.
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